The Michipicoten area has a long and rich history filled with times of prosperity and hardship that were influenced by the natural resources abundant in the area. Settlers have been attracted to the area for over 3,000 years beginning with the Anishnabwe people.
Aboriginal settlement occurred around the Michipicoten area in at least four locations and these settlements have been traced back as early as 1165 B.C.
Between 1617 and 1622 Etienne Brûlé became the first European to reach and travel the shores of Lake Superior. During this period Brûlé discovered and made contact with the Ojibway tribe living on the Michipicoten River. In Ojibway, Michipicoten means “Big Bluffs” or “the big bluffs there,” a reference to the very rugged coastline and large hills found along the shore and on the island about 40 km west of the river mouth. Due to Brûlé’s explorations, the name and location of Michipicoten appeared on Samuel de Champlain’s map of 1632 of explored areas of the New World. Michipicoten is one of the oldest original place names found on any map of Ontario.
The first fur trading post was built in 1725 on the south shore of the Michipicoten River where it merges with the Magpie River to flow into Lake Superior. The Michipicoten Post became the headquarters for the Hudson Bay Company from 1827 to 1887 and closed in 1895. Remains of the Post site can still be seen on the banks of the Michipicoten River.
Michipicoten First Nation
On September 7, 1850 “Treaty No. 60” was negotiated and signed between the Honourable William Robinson on behalf of Queen Victoria and Chiefs Totomenai of the Michipicoten Ojibwas and Joseph Peau de Chats. The consequences of this historic document are that the Ojibwa Nation turned over all their lands from Batchawana Bay to Pigeon River (except three small reservations) to the Crown. Totomenai and his tribe were given four square miles at Gross Cap just north and west of Michipicoten Harbour. The Indians also were to receive “the sum of Two Thousand Pounds of good and lawful money to them in hand paid; and a further perpetual annuity of 500 Pounds, the same to be paid to the said Chiefs and tribes – not later than the first of August at the Hudson’s Bay posts at Michipicoten and Fort William.”
The Mission —‘The Michipicoten River Village’
The Hudson’s Bay Co. contributed significantly to the growth of the Michipicoten area. Aboriginals originally living at the post relocated to a high bank across the Michipicoten River that came to be known as the Michipicoten Mission. The original development of the Mission was influenced by the location chosen for the first church in the area. European exploration of the Lake Superior frontier was quickly followed by adventurous Jesuit missionaries eager to establish contact with the native people. Established by the Jesuit Order, the Sainte Margaret- Mary Church is believed to have been the symbolic centre of the Mission since the early 1800’s until 1980 when it was destroyed by fire. Though the church is gone, the Mission survives as a picturesque sister community of Wawa that has maintained its original image. This community has since been renamed to Michipicoten River Village.
Of all the communities in the Superior East Region, Wawa has had the least amount of historical participation in the logging industry. This includes a short-lived surge of lumbering along Lake Superior and major rivers in the area during the 19th Century. During the early 1900’s, timber was harvested and floated down the Agawa, Magpie, and Michipicoten River systems. The logs were gathered into huge booms at the mouths of the rivers and towed by tugs to the pulp mill in Sault Ste. Marie. Boom logs, steel pins and cables are still visible along the eastern Superior shoreline and river banks. The remnants of early logging camps can be found in isolated areas of both Pukuskwa National Park and Lake Superior Provincial Park on Mijinemungshing Lake.
The exploration and extraction of mineral resources have been ongoing activities in the Wawa area since the operation of primitive copper mines in the late 1600’s. Short-lived copper and ore mining ventures occurred in the 1770’s and unsuccessful mining exploits continued in spurts until 1897 when gold was discovered on the south shore of Wawa Lake ensuring Wawa’s future as a mining town. Described as a miniature Klondike, the Wawa gold rush lasted until 1906. Wawa was surveyed and plotted into a town site in 1899 and ￼was registered with the land office in Sault Ste. Marie as Wawa City. Wawa is an Ojibway word which is believed to mean “wild goose”. This name was chosen for the town site because of the large flocks of Canada Geese that used Wawa Lake as a resting place during their annual migrations.
In the 1920’s, a revitalized interest in the gold deposits near Wawa led to the discovery of new gold veins at Michipicoten. Gold mines that were operational during the first Wawa gold boom were redeveloped and in 1926, Grace Mine was re-opened and by 1932, Jubilee, Minto, Darwin, and Parkhill mines had begun operations. These four mines were the most successful of at least fifteen other gold mines that also commenced during this time. The gold mines led to the creation of short-lived communities directly adjacent to the mine sites that have now all disappeared.
Gold mining in Wawa has fluctuated experiencing peak production and profits in the late 1980’s when Ontario became the largest gold producer in Canada. Due to the advent of a poor gold market in 1990s, the industry declined leaving only one gold mine remaining in operation, River Gold. Exploration in the area has recently increased.
Iron Ore Mining
Gold mining led to the coincidental discovery of high quality iron ore in the area. Francis Hector Clergue and his newly formed Lake Superior Power Company began mining operations at Helen Mine and, from 1900-1918 Helen Mine was the largest producer of Iron Ore in Canada.
The Helen Mine remained an open pit operation until 1950 and in 1960 the George W. MacLeod Mine went into production next to the Helen Mine. Throughout the nineties, Algoma Ore continued to be challenged by international markets and in December of 1997, Algoma Steel announced that they could no longer support the high cost of extracting low grade iron from Algoma Ore. Even though Wawa’s mountain of iron ore still had more to give, operations were shut down in June of 1998, 100 years after iron was first discovered in this remote corner of Northern Algoma.
The Wawa Goose
For many years Wawa’s only links with the outside were by way of a steamboat service (until 1941), air (floatplane) and the Algoma Central Railway from Hawk Junction to Sault Ste. Marie. A Trans-Canada Highway became an obsession of the region for some 30 years. By 1930 a section of highway was constructed from Sault Ste. Marie to Montreal River. It eventually made its way to the Agawa River, sixty miles from Wawa, where it stopped and remained untouched until 1956 when a 12 mile extension was added. The rugged 60 miles of highway between Agawa and Wawa was finally completed in 1960. The “Gap”, as it was aptly named, was the most expensive Ontario section of the Trans- Canada Highway.
Wawa’s famous Goose was also unveiled at the official opening of the Trans-Canada Highway. Constructed as a fitting symbol of the area, the original Wawa Goose stood 27 feet high, 23 feet long and weighed 150,000 pounds. The statue sat at the junction of Highway 17 to White River and Highway 101 to Wawa and Chapleau in hopes of attracting people to stop and visit the area. In 1963, the original Goose was replaced by one a foot taller and 145,600 pounds lighter. It was constructed of rolled, cold steel from Algoma Steel and the base of the statue is surrounded by a hedge of hawthorn bushes transplanted from the old Hudson Bay Post on the Michipicoten River.
When Wawa opened its doors to Trans-Canada travelers, the community was permanently transformed. Motels, stores, service stations, parking areas, paved roads and other services were developed to facilitate Wawa’s newest industry, tourism.
The tourist industry has since become a significant contributor to the prosperity and survival of the Wawa area. Its scenic location in the rugged landscape of Lake Superior’s north shore and the abundance of unspoiled wilderness is a resource that offers unlimited opportunity for hunting, fishing and outdoor enjoyment.